Krystal Lum and Brandon Trejo awarded 2022 NIH-funded NJ ACTS Translational Science fellowships

Written by
Caitlin Sedwick for the Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton University
Nov. 16, 2022

This past summer, two members of the Princeton University Department of Molecular Biology (MOL) were awarded The New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science (NJ ACTS) TL1 Fellowships. Graduate student Brandon Trejo and postdoctoral researcher Krystal Lum were selected as NJ ACTS TL1 Fellows and began their appointments in July of 2022 along with four other awardees. Their cohort joins the ranks of 20 other fellows and program alumni from prior years, eight of whom are from Princeton.

Postdoctoral researcher Krystal Lum (left) and graduate student Brandon Trejo (right).

Postdoctoral researcher Krystal Lum (left) and graduate student Brandon Trejo (right) were awarded NJ ACTS TL1 Fellowships in July of 2022.
Images courtesy of Krystal Lum and Brandon Trejo.

For many young researchers, the great promise of a career in basic research is the opportunity to make discoveries that are transformative not just in the laboratory but in society at large. However, experimental challenges are not the only hurdles that must be surmounted before a new discovery can reach the patients and policymakers who need it. There are a host of practical, regulatory, and bureaucratic issues that must also be overcome. Meanwhile, funding agencies and potential collaborators in the industrial sector are increasingly demanding that their partners in basic research both understand these challenges and be prepared to grapple with them. If those pursuing basic research are not taught the skills needed to cope with these demands, the world will miss out on discoveries that could change lives for the better.

NJ ACTS is a statewide consortium of partners including Princeton University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rutgers University, and other affiliates whose mission is to help researchers translate their work from the lab bench to hospital exam tables and government conference tables. To further this goal, the NJ ACTS TL1 Training Program offers fellowships aimed at teaching predoctoral and postdoctoral researchers the knowledge and skills needed to conduct translational team research across disciplines. This includes training in how to navigate tasks such as grant submission, and how to productively collaborate with clinical, governmental, or industrial partners. As part of the competitive application process, prospective Fellows submit a research plan to a scholarly committee drawn from experts at participating institutions. Upon selection and project approval, awardees receive a stipend, funds for training/research-related expenses, support for professional travel and access to special seminars, and experiential learning opportunities to enhance their regular training.

For Trejo, whose research project is being overseen by MOL professor Danelle Devenport, the NJ ACTS fellowship award provides an opportunity to broaden the impact of his work.

“I’m studying how stem cells within the skin interpret and respond to the needs of the tissue,” said Trejo. “Stem cells in the bottommost layer of the skin either divide to self-renew their population and contribute to tissue growth, or divide to contribute to the stratification of the skin. The balance of these two abilities is vital to maintaining the skin’s function throughout the development and life of an organism. My research aims to further understand how mechanical cues from the surrounding tissue environment control a stem cell’s division.”

“I’m excited about Brandon’s project because it is rooted in basic research that seeks to understand stem cell behaviors in a tissue context, but it also has translational implications. His findings will help to explain how the skin remodels itself in response to mechanical impacts such as injury, surgery, or changes in body size due to weight loss or weight gain. It may also provide insights into how to grow organs of the correct size for transplantation and regenerative medicine,” said Devenport.

Trejo hopes the NJ ACTS fellowship will help him forge connections with the clinical research community and teach him communication skills for dealing with stakeholders including clinicians and patients.

Meanwhile, Lum is eager to make contact with clinicians and other scientists who can help her focus her work where it can be most impactful. Her research, supervised by MOL professor Ileana Cristea, seeks to answer an enduring question in cancer biology: why tumors of the same tissue in different patients respond differently to chemotherapy. Lum suspects this has to do with how the particular mutations present in tumor cells affect interactions between proteins within those cells, between those cells and other cells, or with microbes in their environment.

“Because signaling both within and between cells inherently relies on dynamic changes to proteins, my work focuses on clarifying alterations in protein interactions, abundances, and post-translational modifications,” said Lum.

“Given the impact of these tumor communication events on disease progression and cellular immune responses, understanding such mechanisms could lead to insights into anti-tumor immune responses and chemotherapy drug action that would inform needed combination therapies,” said Cristea. “This fellowship provides the remarkable opportunity for Krystal to interact with health professionals through NJ ACTS. This is a tremendous and synergistic networking resource for her.”

“I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity. Interacting with translational scientists and clinicians can expose me to current experimental models that most closely reflect human disease, and to preclinical challenges that hinder progress in translational research,” said Lum.

“Exposure to the clinical research community, education on how to advance preclinical research, and training on how to write grants for clinically or socially relevant projects can provide young researchers with a big boost early in their careers,” said Daniel Notterman, a professor in MOL who is also co-director of the NJ ACTS TL1 training program.

Graduate students and postdocs who think their research might benefit from the support offered by the NJ ACTS TL1 Training Program can consult its website and contact the program’s on-campus manager, Bianca Freda, for more information. The 2023 NJ ACTS TL1 program will begin accepting new applications in Spring 2023.

Funding: Support for NJ ACTS is through Clinical and Translational Science Award grants (UL1TR003017, KL2TR003018 and TL1TR003019) administered by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health.